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John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

[1]1,296 words

John Wyndham
The Chrysalids
London: Michael Joseph, 1955

I am a child of the Cold War, so good post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly that involving the world after thermonuclear holocaust, resonates with me. An example I recently enjoyed was The Chrysalids by apocalyptic Science Fiction author John Wyndham, also known for The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Midwich Cuckoos.

Originally published in 1955, the novel is set many centuries into the future, mostly in Waknuk, a frontier village in rural Labrador. The region enjoys a warmer climate than at present, and is surrounded by wild country that is rife with mutant plant and animal life. The villagers live in a pre-industrial society, and practice a form of fundamentalist Christianity, burdened with post-apocalyptic prohibitions. The religion’s historiography regards genetic mutations as a curse, brought about by the transgressions of the ‘Old People’, which resulted in ‘Tribulation’. Accordingly, its adherents have enthroned genetic orthodoxy as the highest of virtues; deviance is blasphemy. Mutant plants and animals are destroyed; mutant humans are banished or killed. Those who are banished live in the Fringes—genetically deviant country beyond Waknuk’s agrest periphery; they subsist in squalor, obtaining food and materials through frequent raiding expeditions. All the same, however, the government of Labrador is corrupt and has a less than perfectly rigorous policy—a situation resented by the most pious villagers.

The novel follows David Strorm, son of Joseph, a religious zealot, and much of it is spent describing their farming society. David has recurring dreams of the technologically advanced cities from the time before Tribulation (or so it seems initially), and is one of several telepaths residing in Waknuk. He is allowed to exist because possibility of telepathy has not occurred to the villagers, who have been preoccupied with physical anomalies, causing the mutation to remain hitherto undetected. Eventually, however, it is discovered, and David is forced to flee into The Fringes, along with Rosalind Morton (his closest friend) and Petra (his younger sister), both also telepaths. A search party is organized, but David and his confederates enjoy help from Michael, a crypto-telepath, who is a member of the search party.

As they flee, Petra, who is endowed with vastly superior telepathic ability, is able gradually to enter into communication with a female, located in a geographically remote location. It gradually transpires that the Sealand woman, as she is referred to, lives in a modern, techno-industrial society where telepathy is sought after and trained systematically. David and company encounter hostile Fringes people, who capture them. At this point, however, David obtains help from Sophie, a six-toed former childhood friend, long exiled to the Fringes, and they are given sanctuary in a secret forest cave, not far from the mutant settlement. Meanwhile, the Sealand woman has become very interested in Petra and comes with a rescue party aboard an aircraft. Once there, they swiftly dispatch the troublesome pursuers, mutant and non-, and take David, Rosalind, and Petra away to a new life in Sealand.

Wyndham is strongest during the pre-flight part of the novel, and makes an excellent job at conveying the nebulous understanding that comes from lack of solid and readily available information. David’s first person narrative is riddled with rumor, hearsay, and speculation. Wyndham is also effective at generating in the reader curiosity about the world beyond Waknuk, of which we learn via David’s retelling of fragmented, vague, third-party accounts: aside from the mutations, it is through descriptions, relayed by sailors, of distant wastes of vitrified earth and black ruins that glow faintly in the night, and of the symptoms that afflict those who come near them, that the implication of a long-ago nuclear holocaust is made. A race of humans with telepathic ability is one of the consequences in Wyndham’s post-nuclear future, but this choice undermines what is otherwise an accomplished effort—at least to my mind, telepathy is less convincing than some of mutations he describes.

What is perhaps most interesting from our perspective is Wyndham’s attitude towards the opposing factions. He shows contempt for the villager’s belief system, which, albeit understandable, comes across as archaic, blinkered, and fearful; in character it resembles Mediaeval Catholicism, particularly in relation to heterodoxy and especially pagans. The first part of the novel, therefore, appears to argue for tolerance. But Wyndham’s sympathetic portrayal of the distant Sealanders, twinned with their ruthlessness, superior airs, and frank Darwinian outlook—the latter articulated at length by the Sealand woman at the end of the book—suggests an elitist, rather than an egalitarian disposition: Wyndham’s is an ecology where diverse organisms compete amorally for resources, and where the strongest and most highly developed wins over the weaker and less developed.


John Wyndham, 1903–1969

Some might find the Sealander’s fusion of Darwinism and modernity somewhat confusing, even slightly contradictory, given that in the 21st century many associate the Right with traditionalism, elitism, Darwinism, organicism, nature mysticism, rural idealizations, and racialism; and the Left with modernism, egalitarianism, environmentalism, mechanism, scientism, urbanism, and cosmopolitanism. The former is widely seen as backward-looking, nostalgic / evolutionary; the latter as forward-looking, iconoclastic / revolutionary. We must, however, remember that for all its progressivist, revolutionary aspirations, modernism—the rejection of tradition implicit in modernity—always had two sides to it. There was the aspect linked to Marxism (Bertold Brecht, Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Antonio Gramsci), and the aspect linked to the Right (Louis-Ferdinand Céline, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats). Even if Science Fiction is not modernism, like modernism it is fundamentally a product of modernity, irrespective of any antecedents we may find in Antiquity and later periods. Thus, while those influenced by multicultural liberalism today may experience unease at unapologetic avowals of social Darwinism, the Sealanders are one logical outcome of both the literary genre in which they appear and the time in which they were conceived. (Across the Atlantic, as it happens, one Ayn Rand wrote novels around this time that implied a similarly modernistic elitism.)

The encumbrance of present-day dominant ideology is one of the main problems with Science Fiction writing: too often its future scenarios are extrapolations of present trends—a reflection of present-day preoccupations, fears, and aspirations —which ignore, rather than embrace, the likelihood of paradigm shifts in human consciousness—of a qualitative alteration in values. Such likelihood makes all extrapolations obsolescent. The impossibility of fully anticipating the knock-on effects of any new development make it extremely difficult to see beyond the immediate future—and the difficulty only increases exponentially the farther into the future one ventures, given that distant time-frames imply the compound effect of multiple paradigm shifts, each affecting an infinity of variables in ways, and for reasons, unimaginable today. While The Chrysalids does not escape this problem, betraying a typical Cold War preoccupation with nuclear conflict and genetic mutation, in an oblique way the half century elapsed since its composition possibly affords us a glimpse beyond present intellectual fashion: nature, after all, is cyclical, and the collapse of the present order, should it occur at a level of higher technological development, is likely to bring an inversion of modern liberal values, not their limitless expansion. The Sealanders’ worldview is then probably not just outdated, but both outdated and futuristic.

In our current epoch and situation, we can interpret The Chrysalids in a manner that makes it more poignant for us today than it would have been in 1955: are we to allow ourselves to be disprivileged, dehumanized, and banished to the fringes as blasphemous aberrations by a superstitious self-appointed tyranny—are we to yield to their self-serving orthodoxy, or are we to scorn the tyranny and create a new society that is true to our nature, without fear or apologies to anyone?

In ways not necessarily conceived or intended, The Chrysalids contains an important message for White people today.